Tuesday, October 11, 2011

She Could Not Help Burning Herself from the Inside Out: a review of YOUR OWN, SYLVIA by Stephanie Hemphill

If poetry is born out of the depths of adversity in the human spirit, perhaps no other poet owes more to adversity than Sylvia Plath.  An outstanding beauty and incredibly talented writer, she was born during the Great Depression, lost her father when she was 8, hospitalized for depression at 19, and became a single mother of two by age 31.  Sylvia’s difficult life experiences, in particular, her struggle with depression, became the subject of her intensely personal and confessional poetry.  Now, Sylvia’s life itself has become the subject of Stephanie Hemphill’s verse portrait.

Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill

Critical Analysis
Hemphill has created a book of 152 separate poems that stand alone as solid, if not inspired, pieces.  This in itself is remarkable.  But what is incredible about this work is that she has managed to construct a straight-forward narrative by piecing together various points of view of major and minor characters in the actual life of Sylvia Plath--her mother, father, grandparents, childhood friends, lovers, therapists, nannies, editors, and benefactors.  Some of the pieces are written in the style of Plath's poetry while others allude to major motifs found in her work.  Hemphill has been masterful when constructing motifs for her book which resonate with motifs in Plath's own work.  One example is Plath's struggle to break free from the memory of her father,  symbolized by bees.  Early in the book, the poem "Beekeeper, Penny-Pincher, Professor, Master of the House," is written in the voice of Otto Plath, Sylvia's father.  In the poem, Otto refers to himself as the "long-reigning queen bee,/Aurelia,Sylvia, and Warren,/my workers buzz as I dictate,/...When I perish,/a new queen/will lead this little hive..."  Later in the book, this motif occurs again in a poem called "The Arrival of Poetry," written in Plath's voice in the style of her poem, "The Arrival of the Bee Box." This new poem establishes Plath as her own queen bee, in charge of her own life and her own writing: "she studies the page, astonished/At her maniac poems, buzzing real as an ear/...And she is their creator,/Standing alone in her laurel crown."  Careful attention to Hemphill's notes reveals that during one of Sylvia's most prolific periods, she wrote a series of "five poems she collectively called 'Bees.'  They deal--if not overtly, then inadvertently--with her father.  Otto had studied bees, was a beekeeper, and had authored Bumblebees and Their Ways."  This is only one example of Hemphill's careful weaving of her poetry with Plath's work and life.  

One of the most poignant nods to Plath's work comes in Hemphill's poem "Baby Girl," in which Hemphill recreates Plath's love for her daughter,  written in the style of Plath's "Morning Song."  Plath's poem begins, "Love set you going like a fat gold watch."  Hemphill picks up this theme in the first lines of her poem, "I have waited for you, your heartbeat/Inside me like the clock's ticking/Second hand.  I still feel your pulse when I sleep."  Hemphill's poetry is a fine tribute to Plath: "She could not know how long/Her luminary would map the sky,/Or where her dying would lead the lost./But for those who gaze heavenly/Or into the reflected pool of night,/She is fuel. She is dust. She is a guiding star."

This is a difficult book to read, due to the tragic nature of Plath's mental illness and death.  It is recommended for ages 15 and older, and I would suggest that guideline be followed.   In her letter to the Reader, Hemphill states that at age 15, she "had this dark, fierce place inside me that no one quite understood and I myself couldn't articulate."  As a teenager, she related to Sylvia in an "almost eerie way."  This book is important because it might speak to writers, especially young women caught somewhere in those angst-ridden years between girlhood and womanhood.  It might help them find a voice.  On the other hand, I worry about girls who may be depressed themselves and idolize Plath's tragic end.  The gravity of this book requires a reader who can handle its weightiness. 

Awards and Reviews
  • Michael L. Printz Honor Book, 2008
  • Myra Cohn Livingston Award, 2008
  • ALA Best Book for Young Adults, 2008
  • Kirkus Editor's Choice, 2008
  • Cybil's Finalist, 2008
  • Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People Award, 2008
  • New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, 2007
"An intimate, comprehensive, imaginative view of a life that also probes the relationships between poetry and creativity, mental fragility, love, marriage, and betrayal. ...This accomplished, creative story may ignite new interest in Plath's original works."--Gillian Engberg, Booklist (February 15, 2007)

"Hemphill rises to the challenge of capturing the life of a poet through poetry itself; the end result is a collection of verse worthy of the artist whom it portrays."--Jill Heritage Maza, School Library Journal (March 1, 2007)

"Hemphill will immerse the mature student and many adults in Plath's life and work and motivate them to learn more about Plath and other poets."--Lucy Schall, Voice of Youth Advocates (April 1, 2007)

Lesson Extensions
This is a highly literary book, best suited for Junior or Senior English, as the recommended reading age is 15 or older, due to disturbing issues such as suicide.  However, it would have great value for students who are interested in poetry as a means of self-expression or for those who are interested in the literary canon, as Plath is a major 20th century poet.

Using the principal of poetry to describe events in an author's life, a literature teacher could use this book as a model for an alternative to a regular biography report.  Students could chose a poet, and then report on three major events in that poet's life in verse form.  An extension of that might be to have them replicate the poet's style, which could also be modeled from Hemphill's book.

Any of these poems would be well-suited as a springboard for crafting Sylvia's response to the people in her life.  For example, students could craft Sylvia's response to a poem her mother or to one by her male admirers or her husband Ted Hughes.  This would be a good exercise in understanding point of view.

Hemphill uses annotations within the text to tell the biographical story that sparked the occasion for the poem.  Students could study the circumstances surrounding the major poems of other famous writers and write annotations for those poems much as Hemphill has done, thus forming connections between the poem and the poet's life.

Vital Stats
Hemphill, Stephanie.  2007.  Your Own, Sylvia: a Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath.  New York: Knopf.  ISBN: 0-7686-3863-9

Note:  I downloaded and read this book via Kindle Cloud Reader.  Thus, no pages are given for specific quotations referred to in the above review.  I found out the hard way that it is nearly impossible to conduct literary analysis of a complex piece of literature using an e-reader.  

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